Preventing conflicts in parts of Africa from becoming religious wars is achievable, according to a cardinal from the continent, who says his experience shows what can be done.
Cardinal Dieudonné Nzapalainga said his work with imams and other faith leaders in the Central African Republic (CAR) may be relevant for countries in and around the Sahel, where religious differences are fuelling violence.
Speaking to Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), the Catholic charity for persecuted Christians, the Archbishop of Bangui said that co-operation with pastors and imams was critical in the early days of the war in the CAR.
Asked about conflict escalation in countries such as Mali, Burkina Faso, Nigeria and Niger, Cardinal Nzapalainga said: “Our experience shows that religious conflicts can be avoided.”
He highlighted other Muslim-majority countries in the region, such as Senegal, where he said there is no inter-religious conflict.
The cardinal said: “I think that religious leaders have a very important role to play to avoid religious division.”
Reflecting on his experiences in the CAR, where early on in the war Christians came under attack from the mostly Muslim Séléka militia, he said: “Our efforts at peace-building were made easier by the fact that in Central African society many families are mixed, and everybody has a cousin, an uncle or somebody close who belongs to another religion, but is still part of the same family tree.
“We witnessed beautiful moments of brotherhood in Bangui, in which young Muslims helped to rebuild churches and young Christians helped to rebuild mosques.
“At the end of the day, even though this crisis has been terrible, it has had the positive effect of promoting unity among us.”
Cardinal Nzapalainga said that stopping the conflict in the CAR remains difficult because the country’s “weak administration” is struggling to tackle anti-government militias spread out across a large country.
He added: “The political motives of these rebels are unclear but I fear that it is more a case of people who joined militias and cannot put down their weapons now because they have no other means of earning a living.”
The cardinal described how the rebels continue to be present in smaller settlements, meaning that people cannot travel freely because of insecurity.
He said: “[The people] fear roadblocks and explosive devices.”
The cardinal recalled how in February Father Norberto Pozzo, an Italian missionary in the CAR, had to have a foot amputated after the car he was in hit a landmine north of Bangui, the capital.